General Motors miffed at LA Times review, pulls all advertising

Breezing through today’s news wires, I was surprised and disturbed to see an article at the Beeb entitled GM Stops Advertising in LA Times. According to the report, Dan Neil, Los Angeles Times automotive writer, had an article published in which he called for the ouster of GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, and now General Motors is refusing to run any adverts in the Times.
Earlier this week, General Motors announced that the same Rick Wagoner had been promoted to run the entire North America operation, a move that generated some controversy in the industry and even produced a bland posting by VP Bob Lutz over at the GM Fastlane Blog.

A carefully worded story in The LA Times explains it this way: “Times spokesman David Garcia said that editors at the paper, which is owned by Tribune Co., had “heard some concerns from General Motors and are examining them. We will look into any complaints GM has about inaccuracy or misrepresentation and will make any appropriate corrections.”
Unsurprisingly, the editors of the LA Times are afraid of coming out with any sort of editorial or op-ed piece on the situation, but I’ll say it instead: grow up, General Motors. Last I checked we lived in a nation that celebrated freedom of the press, the right for individuals to have and share their opinion and perspective with others, and a review, whether of a car or a motion picture, is inherently the subjective opinion of the writer and everyone knows that. Except, perhaps, some sensitive GM salespeople.
I find this particularly situation troubling because I am confident that given the financial troubles of the LA Times and other major newspapers, the publisher will hand down a memo to Mr. Neil explaining that criticizing cars is one thing, but criticizing executives at a major advertiser is unacceptable. Neil will balk, but stick with it, because, well, it’s a job.
Those of us on the inside of the publishing industry, whether magazines, newspapers or television, talk about a “fifth wall” that separates advertising and editorial, allowing the editorial team to have autonomy and freedom from the pressures brought by advertisers.
Imagine, how much would you trust a movie review if you knew that the reviewer was being paid by the studio or star? Or even that the studio had promised to buy a week’s worth of full-page ads if the review was favorable? Or a software review if the reviews editor knew that any unfavorable coverage would result in a major drop in ad revenue and a subsequent pink slip?
By pulling their advertising, GM is trying its darndest to breach that fifth wall, to apply pressure on the editorial team at the LA Times where it hurts most, in their income stream. Let’s hope that the LA Times editorial team can stand up to the pressure and retain its editorial integrity.
I’m skeptical, though, as I said. But maybe I’m just pessimistic about the situation. What do you think?
P.S. to GM VP Bob Lutz: why not blog about your perspective on this situation in your Fastlane weblog?

7 comments on “General Motors miffed at LA Times review, pulls all advertising

  1. “Grow uo General Motors” “Breach the fifth wall” “Freedom of the press”!! These statements tell me that you and your friends are a little on the Liberal side. Now I agree that the world needs Liberals just like it needs diseases so it can create vaccines. General Motors has no obligation to support the L.A.Times or any other advertising agency. That is called freedom of doing business. Only the Mafia demands that a business do business with them regardless of the situation. The fact that the L.A.Times has financial problems speaks volumes for it’s idealogical thinking. Comparing General Motors criticism, to movie reviews is a silly comparison, but then again Liberals are a criticizing society. My next car will be a General Motors car thank you. Verne

  2. Hmmm… so your perspective, Verne, is that it’s totally cool for companies to use their financial leverage to pressure the media into covering them favorably, reviewing their products appropriately, etc? Okay, that’s certainly a different perspective. Not one that’s particularly “liberal” or “conservative”, but certainly “pro-business” (since you seem to like labels).
    Unfortunately, if you try to project out and imagine the inevitable results of a world where companies routinely engage in the tactics you’re suggesting, you’ll find that we would have no sources of useful information, no even vague truth or credibility in any media reports, and no venue for people to share their own genuine uninfluenced opinions.
    That might sound like nirvana to you, but it sounds pretty terrible, pretty much like the worst elements of the socialist state with government control (or big business control) of all information fed to the masses.
    General Motors has no obligation to support the LA Times, but a company that’s as large as GM should have executives with sufficient common sense that they can figure out that unbiased, unconditional support of media outlets is in their own self-interest. Tiffs because of one bad story, or even a series of bad reviews, just aren’t good business.
    And if we disagree on this issue, Verne, that’s fine with me too.

  3. I’m not sure which dinosaur I have more animosity towards, GM or that vile rag the LA Times. Tough call. The faster they bash each other into oblivion, the better for the rest of us.
    GM is having a tough time these days and should pull all its ads and remake itself into a company (or set of companies) which are much more derserving of the respect of the American people.
    All big-city news rags should do the same. It’s quite dispiriting when “the media” does so little to engender popular support.
    Sure, no big company should attempt to bully any other company regardless of its size, but no media rag should abuse its’ clout and act arrogantly either.
    My suspicion is that GM’s actions were less about specific coverage in the LA Times, and probably more about general anxiety that their own future is so gloomy.
    The other reality is that with good-paying jobs for average people so difficult to come by these days, a lot of people would cheerfully trade away a critical media for a little more certainty about keeping their jobs, even if it’s a dead-end job at GM. It’s very sad that this is the case, but that doesn’t make it any less true or relevant. Something to do with biting the hand that feeds you.
    By all means let’s criticize GM, but let’s not let “the media” off the hook at the same time.
    — Jack Krupansky

  4. I don’t really give a crap about LA Times or “the media” on this issue. At base it’s a major strategic blunder by GM. They managed to multiply the audience for a negative review. What if movie producers acted the same way? It would rightly be called suicide and there would certainly be no “controversy.”
    The head of their PR department should either be fired (for allowing this to go forward) or resign (so he can show it wasn’t his idea and go work for a company that will listen to his advice).

  5. How strong that 5th Wall was before this happened is anyone’s guess. There is an inheirent conflict of interest for any publication that is reviewing products or services from a company that also advertises with them, regardless of whether the company threatens to take away advertising revenue or not. If one wants truly unbiased ratings of products and services, try something like Consumer Reports, which accepts no revenue from anyone except the subscribers. Frankly, I’m surprised more publications that offer product reviews don’t follow the same model. It’s the only model that truly eliminates conflict of interest, or even the potential appearance of same.

  6. Disclaimer: I know nothing about the article that caused GM to pull the ads.
    – A company does not have to do business with another company that does things it disapproves of.
    – The media does tend to be biased.
    – A newspaper can write just about anything it wants but being a commercial entity it does have to know who are its readers and be able to support itself with commercial clients who agree with the bias of the newspaper.

  7. The article states: “GM is a morass of a business case, but one thing seems clear enough, and Lutz’s mistake was to state the obvious (using the word “damaged” to describe Pontiac and Buick.) and then recant: The company’s multiplicity of divisions and models is turning into a circular firing squad.”
    The car reviewed was the Pontiac G6. “Honestly, it takes some sort of perverse genius to make the Grand Am, the car the Pontiac G6 replaces, look like a showroom winner, but the G6 is selling at about half the volume of the unloved and unlovely Grand Am, which dates to the 1980s.”
    “The G6 is not an awful car. It’s entirely adequate. But plainly, adequate is not nearly enough.”
    GM is punishing the LA Times automotive writer for stating what is obvious to many others: The company is in denial over the need for a serious reorganization. There are still too many divisions and too many similar products across the divisions. It is pushing the wrong products (big SUVs). The Pontiac G6 reviewed was shown to be mostly mediocre. Net result – poor sales.

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